Located about 15 miles from Taos, N.M., the nation’s first subdivision of Earthships – homes made of dirt-rammed tires, discarded glass bottles and thick adobe – rises out of the desert like a mirage.
But this is no fleeting illusion. Earthship Biotecture, which is the company behind the Earthship, is steadily marching toward its goal of changing the world with radical yet efficient designs that enable people to not only build houses out of what many consider garbage, but also live off the electrical grid – all in an oasis of comfort.
“It’s everything people want, as far as amenities, without the constant bills. It’s freeing. It’s like the true American dream,” says Griffin Davis.
For the past year, Davis has been studying building techniques as an intern at Earthship Biotecture, which is part of the Greater World Earthship Community, a subdivision founded in 1994 by New Mexico-resident Michael Reynolds. He’s considered the guru of taking the Earthship model beyond the norm of using recycled and natural materials in construction to complete lifestyle sustainability.
“I’ve been fascinated with the idea,” said Rob Lamborn, a Fort Carson soldier who recently stopped by Earthship Biotecture’s visitors’ center near Taos. “It’s a miraculous concept: Out of waste materials you can easily provide your own shelter, power, water and food supply.
“It’s also visually stunning, being in harmony with the natural environment in a self-sustaining building with no grid infrastructure.”
The visitors’ center, which attracts as many as 100 people a day from around the nation, is a working model. The company also offers training for anyone interested in learning how to build an Earthship. And it supplies teams that do “humanitarian builds” of Earthships for people in struggling countries such as Haiti and Malawi, and others in need, including Hurricane Katrina victims.
“It’s not the answer to all our problems, but I feel like it’s a means to getting there,” Davis said. “You can throw in words like ‘sustainable’ and ‘green,’ but what it really is, is logical. It just makes sense.”
The ABCs of Earthships
The subdivision, just past the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, has 70 Earthships with space for a total of 130. The 663-acre site also includes 2 acres of experimental projects, decreed by state law in 2007.
Davis said Reynolds told legislators, in appealing for his cause, “You let people test an atomic bomb in New Mexico, and you won’t let me have 2 acres of sustainable testing?” Among the experiments are one-room “simple survival” units, which Davis calls “basically like camping with walls.” The basic, no-frills structures cost $15,000 to $25,000 to build and feature mud floors, automotive power converters, film solar strips on the roof, a bucket-flush commode, a worm digester for cleansing sink water, a gravity shower and a greenhouse.
The subdivision also has several furnished Earthships that can be rented for a night or extended stays, which last year earned it a spot on online travel site TripAdvisor’s Top 10 quirkiest U.S. lodging properties.
Reynolds’ Earthships meet local building codes. There are various floor plans – from luxury mansions to studio homes – but all designs contain these key elements:
– Natural and recycled materials: Old tires, empty food and drink bottles and cans, dirt, mud, sand and straw form exterior and interior walls and arches. Wood, rocks, concrete and mesh complete the structural components.
– Water harvesting: Rain and snow is captured on the roof and channeled through silt catches into buried cisterns. The water is gravity-fed into a pumping and filtering system that supplies code-required water pressure and clean water for drinking, cooking and bathing. A communitywide well connection is available as a backup source and for fire protection. One inch of water yields two-thirds of a gallon on 1 square foot of roof. Therefore, a 2,000-square-foot roof nets about 10,500 gallons of water a year for saving and recyling.
– Sun and wind power: Horizontal wind turbines and passive solar systems that rely on rechargeable batteries mean no connection to the electrical grid is needed. Enough power is generated to provide lights, required electrical outlets, Wi-Fi connection and television.
– A contained, on-site sewage treatment system: Rubber-lined planters treat filtered rainwater that has been used in sinks and showers. Solar pumps recirculate and plant roots oxygenate the gray water and clean it enough so that it can used again, this time for flushing toilets. Dirty toilet water flows outside to a septic tank and leach field. The filtered water can be used for outdoor landscaping.
– Food production: Abutting the home’s solar panels is a tropical garden with vegetables, fruit trees and other plants that cleanse shower and sink water (and also ingest it) to create a balanced ecosystem. Homes can have ponds with fish, such as tilapia. Succulent plants help eliminate odors.
– Passive thermal heating and cooling dynamics: A series of hand-operated vents, dampers, skylights and solar windows help keep the house at the desired temperature daylong and year-round. “When it’s below zero in the winter, it’s still 72 degrees inside, with no furnace,” Davis said.
The heating, cooling and water filtration systems rely on gravity and the forces of nature to operate, a throwback to the way homes used to be built.
“In the late 1800s, buildings used solar lighting and contained thermal mass, but in the 1940s and ’50s, buildings started to change to be more reliable on mechanical systems,” he said. “Biotecture is achieving sustenance through encountering natural phenomena – sun, wind, water, earth, gravity.”
The cost of saving the planet
Building an Earthship costs about 20 percent more per square foot than a conventional house, said Kirsten Jacobsen, education director for Earthship Biotecture. In the Taos area, that translates to about $215 per square foot. In the Pikes Peak region, it would be about $128.50, according to figures from Pikes Peak Regional Building Department.
“The crucial difference being that with a conventional house, you are constantly paying to heat, cool and get electricity to the home,” Jacobsen said. “With an Earthship, all the independent systems that make the home not need utility bills are included in the price of the building.”
Earthships also are artistic, Davis points out. Colored bottles that previously contained water, wine, beer, iced tea, hot sauce, pickles, olives and other products form rainbow patterns on walls and let light in. Unique tile designs on floors and adobe also are eye-catching.
Combine all that with the indoor greenhouse, and “it’s like your home is alive,” Davis said.